John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023) Movie Review

My relationship with the John Wick films has been a turbulent one. My review for John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum revised my review of John Wick: Chapter Two. In re-watching the films in preparation for this new, epic-length chapter, I found my fondness for the first film waning. There is enjoyment to be had in all three films, and the stunt work in the first film was arguably a wake-up call to the rest of Hollywood to step up their action movie product.

But I have also found myself increasingly exhausted by the prolonged action sequences, flurries of bullets, and metric ton of broken glass. I had to question, then, what my response to an almost three-hour long fourth film in this franchise might be. My expectations were in flux. Parabellum is the best in the franchise, if what you are looking for in a John Wick film is a cartoonish expansion of lore that situates this criminal underbelly world as one of hierarchical bureaucracy built on blind loyalty and blood sacrifice. That that film ends with the promise of a war to upend the High Table at the top of this pyramid makes the concept of a fourth film sound appealing.

On the other hand, I can only watch Mr. Baba Yaga get tossed through panes of glass so many times before I start longing for something different. It was with this frame of mind that I met John Wick: Chapter 4, and, unfortunately, this beefy new installment is a thoroughly draining experience. For all of its brilliant choreography and laser-precise editing, all of the indulgent lighting and chunky sound effects, the onslaught of visual stimuli that is John Wick 4 is too much for my patience. Somewhere around the scene where Scott Adkins appears in a giant muscle suit and gold front teeth, my eyes started going glassy.

This fourth film sees Mr. Wick (Keanu Reeves) training in the New York City underground, under the protection of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). Picking up where the third film ends, Wick’s few remaining allies are banding together to take on the High Table, this universe’s shadowy puppeteers. Wick, who has already been declared ex-communicated from the criminal enterprise and whose life is now a bounty more valuable with every hour he remains breathing, is ready to take the fight to the very top.

At least, this is how the film begins. Eventually, it settles into a different groove, wherein one central figure who is vaguely associated with but is not directly a part of the High Table becomes the primary target. This Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) hires a former friend of Wick’s, Caine (Donnie Yen), to assassinate the heretic. In a roundabout way, Wick’s mission becomes one of returning into the fold of the network of criminals in order to take the Marquis down.

It is a strange narrative gymnastics, one which allows the High Table to remain enshrouded in mystery but which also works to undercut the plot of the previous film. Wick’s motivation becomes once again to exit the grasp of the High Table, as opposed to going to war with it. It is a circular maneuver that causes much of this film to feel like a rehash of the previous one, where Wick must continually mow down assassins looking to profit off his murder and create uneasy alliances with characters who are only put in danger by associating with him.

It gets a bit samey, even as the production value of this franchise continues to grow and be constantly evident on screen. In bursts, this film looks gorgeous, and each individual set piece in a vacuum is thrilling. It is when they get strung together for the sake of spinning in circles (in one scene, literally doing so) that the film starts to get bogged down in its resplendent “gun fu” indulgence.

The film would perhaps benefit from a stricter adherence to its own internal logic. Where the second and third John Wick films loosely establish an infrastructure under which rules and rule-breaking are met with swift and absolute consequences enacted from above, this fourth film seems to side-step much of this quasi-panopticon authority in favor of giving its major characters an easy way out of their predicament.

Clancy Brown’s “The Harbinger” steps in to essentially reverse the High Table’s position from the previous film. Instead of John Wick being the existential threat to the High Table who must be removed with prejudice, he becomes a negotiating partner. And the singular villain of this film becomes a cure-all antidote to all of the consequences of Wick’s actions.

In one sense, this reads counter to what the John Wick franchise is fundamentally about. The inciting incident for the entire series involves the consequences of a heinous act of violence against a dog. Cause-effect logic propels everything that happens leading into John Wick: Chapter 4. Yet, the consequences become far less important to this film’s script once it needs an ending. Is it a fitting ending, all things considered? I think so. But the way we get there lacks this propulsion, and as a result the film loses sight of the grand political machinations that sent its title character into exile in the first place.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is an epic whose scope exceeds that of most American action films. It is a film which shoots for a religious experience — its heroes are described as prophets, saints, martyrs; their very survival is a miracle; their suffering is imaged as Christ-like. It is no wonder the climax takes place in the shadow of a church. And as much as John Wick may have become the poster boy for contemporary action cinema — a savior, if you will — I find myself no longer clamoring for more. This is the right time to shut the book.

John Wick: Chapter 4: B-

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)


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